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Have Albion Rovers offered a glimpse of the future?

8 November ~ It seems to have been the season of strange and inflated results so far, and this weekend was no exception. Inverness Caledonian Thistle won 6-3 at Kilmarnock. Utrecht beat Ajax 6-4. And in the Lanarkshire derby at the bottom of the Scottish second division, Albion Rovers thrashed Airdrie United 7-2, the first time they had beaten their neighbours in a league game in 35 years (if you count defunct Airdrieonians as essentially the same club as Airdrie United). As shock results go, that one will reverberate around the greystone neighbourhoods of Coatbridge for some time.

In August 1981 I saw Albion lift the Lanarkshire Cup at Airdrie’s old ground, Broomfield. Their untrammelled joy on that summer’s afternoon, at the end of a four-way, weekend-long tournament that also included Motherwell and Hamilton Accies, told of a team eager to make the most of any rare success. Crowds at their perennially threatened home ground of Cliftonhill have been traditionally in the low three figures, while Albion themselves – promoted last season via the play-offs after finishing second in division three – have seldom ventured out of the bottom Scottish tier. Saturday’s seven goals followed just four in their first five home fixtures, and lifted them out of the relegation zone for the first time this season.
 
Media coverage has nonetheless been scant, so you have to scour the message boards to find out what it meant to those in the crowd of just over 1,100. “I first saw a Rovers match versus Stranraer in 1976, just after our last 'proper' win over Airdrie,” wrote one user at the Albion excoboard discussion forum. “We won the Stranraer match 5-2, but today must rank as the best Rovers victory in the last 40 years. I have often yearned for a result as good as the 8-2 win [over Airdrie], one month before my birth, in 1965; today was sensational. That was, without a shadow of a doubt, the finest match I have ever seen at my beloved Cliftonhill. And at Cliftonhill we must remain, as it is unique and beautiful.”
 
Fans were also full of praise for the way stewards dealt with a lone Rovers fan who attempted to wind up the traditionally Protestant Airdrie support with what was described as “a Pope flag”. The flag was calmly confiscated, and this scantling of sectarianism was universally condemned by all right-thinking Rovers folk, some of whom seemed genuinely shocked at the level of abuse some Airdrie fans directed at their own team after the game. Albion, you feel, is the kind of club that deserves more love and support than it gets.
 
Meanwhile, the Airdrie & Coatbridge Advertiser match report invoked ashen-faced Neasden manager Ron Knee when it described his counterpart at Airdrie, Jimmy Boyle, as the “shell-shocked Airdrie gaffer”. Boyle stood up like a man and said: “I’ll take that on the chin. I’m the manager and I picked the team, but as a team performance, it was really embarrassing.” But these are strange times, Jimmy Boyle. Just ask Alex Ferguson.
 
Of course Albion must now deal with the consequences of raised expectations. No matter how many defeats and setbacks a club has endured down the years, and no matter how stoical its followers have become in the long term absence of glory, every single fan at Saturday’s game will, while savouring the beauty of the moment, have fleetingly wondered if this was the first sign of something bigger. Premier League football in five years. Cliftonhill not only saved for good, but rebuilt and expanded, while retaining all its character. Then, in the unlikely shape of the Wee Rovers, a club emerges to challenge the dominant duopoly that has choked Scottish football for so long.
 
Most will have kept such delusional meanderings of the mind to themselves, but there’s no shame in wishful naivety. Even if it was just for one Saturday, and even if Albion fail to score for the next ten weeks, the experience now exists to be nurtured, mythologised and plastered across a T-shirt. Purists may love a technically flawless 0-0 draw, but for fans, when it comes to results, biggest is best. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (6)
Comment by Tony C 2011-11-08 12:48:58

Great piece, Ian.

Comment by Alex Anderson 2011-11-08 16:36:08

Lovely read about a sensational moment.

Sympathies to Jimmy Boyle's chin - When I got back to my car on Saturday after watching my partcular half of The Duopoly, I switched on the radio and my jaw hit the steering wheel as the Killie-Inverness result came through; The score from Cliftonhill had my lower mandible slamming on the foot brake.

Someone texted BBC Radio Scotland's Sportsound saying that this was the greatest day in their 80-year-old grandpa's life as a Cliftonhill regular. The only pity is that there's "probably" no-one left in Coatbridge who saw Albion Rovers losing the 1920 Scotish Cup final to Kilmarnock and therefore no-one who could enjoy the full 2-way schadenfreude of this weekend's results.

There were 95,000 at Hampden in 1920 and Cliftonhill, as you approach the Main Stand from the main road outside, often gave the impression of a ground which might indeed be capable of holding Rovers' fair share of that crowd. When you get inside, you discover quite quickly that it's pulling the opposite optical illusion of our national stadium - the Main Stand frontage at Coatbridge goes way below pitch level - but Cliftonhill is one of the few remaining examples of those pre-war Scottish stadiums I'd doubtless hate to attend every week but love visiting once in a while (a lot of one's SPL games are on a Sunday) to romanticise in the typical patronising fashion of an Old Firm tourist pretending he's anything but a bucket-seat-sitting, electronic turnstyle-pushing, half-time pakora-chewing glory-hunter. Sorry, but the only expansion I ever want to see on that belter of a ground is the curved rakes of terracing restored to each end - preferably by the rickets-ravaged children of mill workers, carrying endless piles of soil in their bare hands.

But I bet Airdrie fans never felt more Airdrie United rather than Airdrieonians than they did on Saturday. My feelings of kudos to Albion Rovers punters was quickly replaced by a vision of what might happen if my club goes under at the hands of the tax man shortly. When Queens Park are whupping Rangers 2012 Atletic 6-0 at Lesser Hampden next season, I'm hoping there'll be even less coverage than there was of Albion Rovers this week. But there'll almost certainly be a mention of the Pope somewhere ...

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-09 07:17:05

I enjoyed this article too, partly because the Scottish lower divisions just don't get that much coverage (at least not in England and even less so in Slovakia!) and also because, along with Arbroath, Albion have been a side whose results I've looked out for down the years. With Arbroath, that's partly down to their unique place in history (the 36-0 win), with Albion, it's the mere fact that they share a bit of their name with WBA.

But the article, Alex's comment and a look back at the WSC photo feature from a year or so ago which covered Alloa's and Stenhousemuir's ground, has also had me seeking out pics of some of these places and for Cliftonville I came upon these stunners :

http://www.doingthe116.com/albionrovers.htm

Have to get there some time, as well as to the quaintly-named Gayfield, and to Stenhousemuir and Alloa, because there seems to be a worrying fashion in the lower Scottish leagues for grounds
with just one new, characterless stand. Cherish the old ones before they really are gone for good.

Comment by madmickyf 2011-11-11 22:45:21

They'll be dancing on the streets of Albion tonight. Or possibly not.

Comment by Velvet Android 2011-11-15 10:57:40

Marvellous article – makes me want to go there. Great responses too. I've always had a soft spot for Albion ever since I started following football aged 9 in the 1988-89 season (as a Norwich City fan) – that being the year that Rovers won their league, for the only time since I've been paying attention to the sport. I took an instinctive aesthetic liking to their name, and have looked out for their results ever after. (Ironically, one of the other couple of teams I similarly 'imprinted' upon was Airdrie, the remaining one being Stirling Albion.) I can still recall the subsequent Rothmans Football Yearbook description almost verbatim: "The Wee Rovers took a useful lead at the halfway stage, and held onto it for the remainder of the season, thanks largely to the cut-throat behaviour of the teams below them"!

Followed James' link to what seems to be a Dutch page describing a correspondent's visit to Cliftonville, which includes bizarre hybrid-language photo captions: there's some really random comedy Dutchlish ones like "Albion Rovers test de keeper van Dumbarton". Actually translating the page in Google comes up with some priceless phrasing: apparently the surrounding environs are best described as "Area: Delicious pauper". Fascinating to discover (living near Cardiff) that the floodlights came from the old Arms Park, though, a pleasingly remote and unlikely destination.

Delighted to see Albion lift off the bottom of the division after this big victory, and find some form – why, they're only a win or two off the play-offs now...

Comment by Alex Anderson 2011-11-15 16:02:22

Great photos, James - and I suppose as a Rangers fan ("Rule Britannia" and all that) I should be joining yourself and Velvet Android in finding any name which invokes old Albion equally interesting. Problem is, Coatbridge is a massive Celtic heartland so whenever thinking of Albion Rovers I also can't help remembering the pub my mate and I walked into after attending an Albion Rovers-East Fife game some years ago - wall-to-wall Celtic fans. Okay I'm hardly a reliable commentator on that particular support but, still, their day could have been so much better spent:

While this is a bit rich coming from a glory-hunter like me, I did find it annoying they were all in the boozer as Celtic played away when 90 minutes without a pint could have doubled the attendance at a league ground just 5 minutes' walk away. I can only assume Rangers were playing on the Sunday but, in the interests of non-sectarian slagging, I must also own up to other weekends when I went to see Partick Thistle and Queens Park at home and the fact there was no Rangers game on those days made not one jot of difference to either Glasgow club's usual attendance.

Anyway, getting slightly off-point here. Cliftonhill is one of the ultimate in existential angsty arenas (compounded or augmented by that huge billboard from a "friendly" demolition company on the main stand facade) - the kind of stadium which makes me wish I smoked or looked good in a beret. But I must go next time they host Airdrie as I assume that's the only time they open the huge (by existing Scotish Standards) terrace opposite the main Stand. When you spend most of your life consigned to plastic bucket seats, terracing - the thought of both arms resting on a crush barrier, and your legs as stretched as you wish - is probably akin to that first cigarette of the day.

I was stuck in the paddock/main Stand enclosure for that East Fife visit to Coatbridge all those years ago and that pitch-length covered terrace - so near yet so out of bounds - was far more alluring than any of the skills on the pitch. Sartre was a wee man but with such decay, temptation and notions of banishment available at Cliftonhill, he must have been a Wee Rovers man.

And I 100% agree with James that these stadia have to be cherished while they remain. My mate and I made our second visit to Firs Park, East Stirling on the day of its last game - and I still wish we'd went more often. Gayfield I've been to just once but it's a cracker - the North Sea does breach the walls but on a sunny winter's day it's gorgeous. And Glebe Park Brechin is arguably my most favourite lower-league venue in the world. Station Park , Forfar is lovely too. Angus could be the ground-hopping capital of Britain, in fact, if it wasn't for the fact Links Park, Montrose is just awful. And why so? - because they tried to make it into a modern-looking lower league ground.

On the subject...


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